Istanbul—As Turkey’s April 16 referendum results rolled in on a flat-screen TV in the downtown Istanbul office of the left-wing, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the mood of party activists turned from disbelief to frustration, exasperation, and fear. They had spent months rallying opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal to change Turkey to a presidential system that would concentrate more power in his hands.
Now they watched their nightmare unfolding on the screen: a narrow, 51.4 percent victory for Erdogan in a poll filled with voting irregularities. In a room where pictures of Fidel Castro; Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); and left-wing Turkish revolutionaries from the 1970s hang on the walls, the activists reflected on the months of state intimidation, harassment, and arrests that obstructed their party’s campaign.
Kivanc Eliacik, a former labor organizer who currently works for the HDP’s international-relations department, was dejected but not surprised, as his fears of electoral manipulation seemed to play out when the state news agency declared only a narrow lead for the “No” vote in Istanbul. The No campaign had expected a considerably larger margin of victory in this vast cosmopolitan metropolis of 15 million people.
“They have just called the results for all of Istanbul, while not a single poll here in Besiktas has reported its results,” said Eliacik that Sunday, referring to the district that was a No stronghold. In the HDP’s own tally of the Besiktas poll, 100,000 of its roughly 125,000 residents voted against the proposed changes. The state news agency at one point declared that over 90 percent of ballots had been counted, but it was contradicted when the elections commission announced it had only counted 70 percent of the votes.
Soon, both HDP representatives and the main opposition party, the liberal nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), were contesting the results and pointing to a rash of voting irregularities. Eliacik, who is in his late 30s, shuffled around the office, calling colleagues and calculating how best to express opposition to the declared results. He worried that the state crackdown on the HDP, which had already seen the jailing of its leaders, along with 13 parliamentarians and thousands of party activists, could expand. And he wondered if an intense post-referendum fight would best serve the interests of his party’s supporters in this oppressive climate.
Within hours, throngs of Erdogan’s conservative, religious, and nationalist backers gathered outside the president’s Istanbul home to celebrate victory. At the same time, in the streets below the Besiktas offices and across the Bosporus in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of Istanbul, thousands of No voters marched. Some banged pots and pans—an echo of, and homage to, the massive 2013 anti-government Gezi Park protests.